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Last week, I mentioned that I was planning a thread for #CiteBlackWomenSunday. I ended up posting a subsidiary thread () about how a novice can do a focused "take" on a historical question that's new to them. But I didn't get to the main thread I planned.
The main thread I had planned, in fact, was to cite myself, since it seemed clear that nobody else was going to do so. This is in regard to a blogpost that appeared on 5 June. There, I was "cited" but not read. Here's the blogpost in question: medium.com/@mrambaranolm/….
And here's a cc: to the author, so she can follow along, should she wish: @ISASaxonists. (Note: this thread will take a while to put together, as I want to make sure I get all the receipts. I won't be interrupting to respond to comments now.)
The gist of Dr Rambaran-Olm's essay, as I read it, is this. Medievalists, she suggests, are asking about connections between the Black Death (the 14th-century plague pandemic) & our current pandemic crisis, #COVID19. Citing my work, she then says ...
"All of this research is important & useful, but something absent in this discussion is the consideration of racial violence that often goes along with these pandemics." Dr Rambaran-Olm introduces herself as a historian, & couches her arguments as representing ...
.. Medieval Studies generally. "What scholars in my predominantly white field have largely failed to see as humanists devoted to understanding the value and agency of humans is that this pandemic has exposed a racial crisis that the world has generally refused to acknowledge."
Let me begin by noting the point on which Dr Rambaran-Olm and I agree, which is her concluding statement: "While the Bubonic Plague of the 14th century may not have been a Black Death in a literal sense, we must face the horrendous truth that COVID-19 most certainly is one."
Anyone who has been following me the past 6 months know that it became obvious early that #COVID19 mortality & morbidity were falling along racial faultlines. Anybody's who's engaged w/ my work for the past 20 years--or the many medical historians who've worked on race ...
.. & medicine since DuBois will know that this outcome was predictable. The questions I need to address here, rather, have to do w/ the deeper medieval history Dr Rambaran-Olm claims to draw on. I'll limit my points to 4: 1) what history has actually been drawn on in constructing
.. these claims; 2) the definition of "racial" in the references to medieval racial violence; 3) xenophobia & history; & 4) an alternative narrative to link the medieval past to the present. So, History. In fact, there's very little of it in Dr Rambaran-Olm's essay. I counted ...
.. 42 hyperlinks in the essay. Only 4 of them link to the work of historians: 2 of them link to me (my Academia.edu page & a pedagogical essay I wrote on the Black Death in 2018); 1 to the Black Death historian Sam Cohn; & 1 to historian @Lollardfish who, however, ...
.. is cited w/ reference to his work on disability advocacy, & not his historical work. There is also 1 citation to a medievalist literature scholar. All the remaining historical links are to Wikipedia pages or other popular history sources. This highly casual approach to ...
.. the quite vast amount of historical scholarship on the Black Death (docs.google.com/document/d/1w8…) is particularly surprising, because it skirts over the fact that I'm the one who assembled that bibliography & that I myself edited a major archaeological study that, for the 1st time,
.. presented in English the documentation for such violence from 14thC Spain (scholarworks.wmich.edu/tmg/vol1/iss1/…; TW: human remains; evidence of lethal violence). Now, I am the first one who will admit that the issue of violence against Jewish communities in Europe is still urgently in ...
... need of more research. But to suggest that this topic has been ignored is simply untrue. (The bibliography cited above lists the scholarship under the heading "Minoritized Groups.") So, item #2: is this violence "racialized"? Here, let me quote a passage from the essay: ...
"Europeans in the fourteenth century sought a scapegoat for the Plague & singled out Jews, foreigners, pilgrims, Romani, lepers, & the poor as possible causes for the pandemic." I'm not going to unpack all these claims, but I will (a) ask which of these groups are "racialized"?
And (b) "look under the hood" at the inclusion of "lepers" in this list. 1st, it is normative now to speak of "persons w/ leprosy." So, was there violence against persons w/ leprosy during the Black Death? Dr Rambaran-Olm in fact provides a hyperlink: cairn.info/revue-annales-…
This 2017 study by Cohn does mention an attack against persons w/ leprosy. But it happened in 1321, more than 2 decades before the Black Death struck. He found no other evidence for this group being specifically targeted or blamed for the pandemic. In fact, although Cohn ...
.. earlier published what is still a major empirical study of the attacks on Jewish communities (academic.oup.com/past/article-a…), the argument of his 2017 paper (the one Dr Rambaran-Olm cites) is that the violence against Jewish communities paled in comparison to violence against ...
.. another group entirely w/i Christian Europe: people's own families & neighbors! Outright abandonment (rather than physical attacks) seems to have been most pervasive. But the sheer scale of social breakdown is mindnumbing to behold. Cohn does not engage w/ this question, ...
... but we clearly must, since it connects w/ point #2: is this "racialized" violence? Presumably, the abandonment of one's own family is the absolute opposite: these were kith & kin. But what of the Christian attacks on the Jews? The pertinence of "race" as a category ...
... of analysis for Medieval Studies is under intense debate right now. I will leave it to colleagues employing Critical Race Theory, on the one hand, & those working in Jewish Studies, on the other, to debate the question of whether/when/how "race" functions as the most ...
.. useful framework to understand the status of Jews w/i Christian European society. But I would put two points on the table. 1st would be to bring in a topic already given extensive analysis in 1977 (but not acknowledged by Rambaran-Olm), to wit, Michael Dols' incisive ...
.. analysis of this simple question: why, when faced w/ the exact same disease threat, did Islamic societies & Christian societies behave so differently towards their subject minority Jewish populations? (brepolsonline.net/doi/abs/10.148…) It's been nearly 50 years since Dols pub'd ...
... this landmark essay. But I have yet to find a single instance from the Islamic world that contradicts his findings: there were no persecutions of Jewish minorities during the Black Death. In fact, we know of quite opposite situations, like this one in Damascus analyzed ..
... just recently by Younus Mirza: themaydan.com/2020/03/it-was…; and also here: islamiclaw.blog/2020/05/18/you…. Now, as @RachelSchine has very lucidly shown, medieval Islamic society most certain had racialized notions (anchor.fm/bottled-petric…). And also ones that were blatantly racist.
As I said, these are questions for scholars far more skilled than I. But my point is that they are neither new nor entirely unexplored. And that brings me to issue #3: xenophobia & history. This was in fact the issue that most immediately jumped out at me from Dr Rambaran-Olm's
... essay & made me most concerned that neither my nor others' historical work was being properly addressed. Again, there is no disagreement between Dr Rambaran-Olm & myself re: the pervasiveness & seriousness of xenophobia in all the ugly ways it is manifesting itself in ..
... our present context. Indeed, as someone who works on the history of leprosy, & who teaches the history of HIV/AIDS, I am fully aware of how awful infectious disease stigmatization can be. Xenophobia, of course, plays out in "blaming" whole groups of individuals, irrespective
... of disease status. Public Health workers understand this dynamic, too, which is why there is extreme care to separate the necessary working of tracking disease movement through populations (epidemiological tracing) from any kind of moral reprobation. The same principles ...
... must be applied in historical epidemiology. Indeed, I think there is no better articulation of this point than @RAMcKay's refutation of the whole fiction of "patient zero" (theconversation.com/patient-zero-w…). So, imagine my shock when I found this in the 1st paragraph of ...
... Dr Rambaran-Olm's essay: "According to medical geneticist Professor Mark Achtman, the disease [plague] caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis 'evolved in or near China'." Now, the biology of infectious diseases (a field now fully committed to evolutionary principles) ...
.. forces us to recognize that every infectious disease has an "origin": a moment when the pathogenic organism develops certain virulent characteristics, & a moment (or several such moments) when it is passed into human bodies. An origin in time also demands that there be ...
.. an origin in space. In other words, every infectious disease came from somewhere. And like MacKay, I would insist that we set moral discourses aside entirely when debating such questions of epidemiology. So what's wrong with the statement cited about about China? Yes, it ...
.. *could* be true. And I myself believed it was true in 2014, when I repeated Achtman's claim. There was good evolutionary justification for it ... At. The. Time. But that time has passed. Since 2017, a series of new studies have shifted the Black Death's origins away from the
.. Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, over to the west. The region where the Black Death originated was far away from any border that China had in the Middle Ages. Yet on news reports & other media, the now-outdated idea keeps being repeated. Since I am the person who refuted it (see ...
... this thread: ), it is especially troubling for me to see medievalists themselves perpetuate this idea at a time when so much--literally, people's lives & livelihoods--is on the line, demanding that we speak as truthfully as possible.
So, #4, my final point: Africa. I actually had an essay on the Black Death that I wrote in April & tried to get placed for publication. The 1st place I sent it to sat on it for 3 weeks w/ no reply; no reply from the 2nd outlet, either. So, I gave up on it & it sits in its ...
.. virtual drawer, abandoned. I mention it now simply because I proposed that there *was* a substantive connection between the Black Death & the cruel racial differentials in #COVID19 morbidity & mortality. I'll leave the specifics of that argument to another time.
So why #CiteBlackWomen? Or even better, *read* their work? It may be that I'm not right--about any of the points in the foregoing. But History will always be a cumulative endeavor. We cannot get anywhere by blithely ignoring the work of our predecessors. Too much is at stake.
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